Looking Back: A grapefruit connection with Texas

Published 9:06 am Saturday, August 2, 2008

There are several ways an association has been established between Albert Lea and the city of McAllen, Texas, through the years, and three of them are based on grapefruit.

Since the 1920s McAllen has been one of the destinations of choice for people from this area to spend their winter months. This city in Hidalgo County is located in the Rio Grande Valley and five miles from the Mexican border. It’s about 70 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and Padre Island.

Because of its climate, the area around McAllen and the nearby cities of Mission, Edinburg and Pfarr, Texas, became a center for the growing and harvesting of citrus trees, especially grapefruit.

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In 1929 Drs. H.D. Burns and O.A. Watland of Albert Lea went to McAllen to purchase land which already had grapefruit trees. Before long they were joined by six other Albert Lea residents who also purchased orchard land.

An article in Feb. 9, 1938, issue of the Tribune found by historical researcher Kevin Savick listed the following local residents and their land holdings in Texas. C.W. Turnbull owned four acres, Dr. Burns had five acres, Dr. Watland (owner of Albert Lea’s Motor Inn) had seven acres, Henry Soth owned 15 acres, Ferd Larson had five acres, Louis Ehrhardt and William P. Sturtz owned five acres together and Joe McGann had 10 acres.

It’s not known if these 51 acres of grapefruit and other citrus trees were in one area or scattered around in the valley. The Tribune article mentioned the Mission part of the Rio Grande Valley as the location of these orchards, For these absentee owners the care, harvesting and marketing of their trees was assigned to the Rio Grande Valley Citrus Exchange, a cooperative. The citrus crops were sold under the trade names of “Texsun” and “Tex-Maid.”

The connection between Albert Lea and McAllen was really emphasized with an advertisement published in the Jan. 7, 1938, issue of the Tribune, also found by Savick. It said Texsun brand tree ripened grapefruit from Albert Lea owned groves in the Rio Grande Valley would be on sale in local stores. Those stores were listed in the ad as: Carl Johnson, Borland-Anderson Grocery, Malmer Grocery, Alex Corner Grocery, Edwin Johnson’s Sanitary Market, J.P. Nelson’s Lake Shore Grocery, Obell Wayne’s Farmer Store, Wangen’s Grocery, Lou’s Grocery on Charles Street, Louis Henry, Fountain Street Grocery, North Side Grocery, Moulton Food Store, Johnson & Hanson, Art Michaelis, Frank Christensen, Stieler’s Food Market, Roy Pilgrim, Mrs. Chris Hvolboll, Dahl & Son, Jefferson Street Grocery, Thuesen’s Grocery, Lamberson’s Grocery, Sipple Grocery, Nimon Grocery and Square Deal Grocery.

The ad emphasized that it took 10 days to bring the grapefruit from the trees to the stores. In that era it’s likely the logical method of transportation was by railroad cars.

What may have been the most unusual connection between this area and the city in the southernmost part of Texas came about because of a soft drink brand created by the Albert Lea Bottling Works in the 1930s.

This local soft drink firm was owned by the Wiegand family for five decades. During the years from 1907 to 1957 the firm marketed its flavored bottled drinks with the brand names of Col. Albert Lea, Minnesota Dry (ginger ale), Ace High (a drink similar to 7-Up), Dr. Sterns Root Beer and McAllen.

The McAllen name was selected because its flavor was based on grapefruit juice Unlike so many present brands of soft drinks which actually don’t contain authentic fruit juices, the McAllen bottles contained a juice with a real Texas connection.

In the Albert Lea area consumers could easily associate the name McAllen with grapefruit. Thus, the main ingredient for the soft drink was a juice which was either shipped in containers from Texas or created at the firm’s plant on West William street.

Just how long the McAllen brand grapefruit drink was sold in Freeborn, Faribault and Waseca counties, plus Mitchell, Worth, Winnebago and Hancock counties in Iowa is not now known.